This is the first of eight blog posts on specialty coffee starting in January 2016. Sign up to the newsletter to learn more about the world of coffee.
“Specialty coffee” is thrown around like tomato sauce. Put on this, labelled on that, equated with the rise of artisanal food products. It has become an ambiguous term that in my experience is communicated more in form (label description), than substance (explanation of the various steps, and addition of value to lives).
This eight –part introductory blog series provides an insight to the world of Specialty Coffee.
To understand specialty coffee, we have to note the various mechanics in the coffee supply chain. The main steps from farm to cup and how it has been (mis?) communicated.
Comparison to wine
In communicating the rise of specialty coffee, industry professionals often make an analogy to wine (different soils, regions where grapes are grown, grape varietals).
Whilst on a sensory analysis it is easy to do so, in substance it is much more complex. Compared to wine where it may be harvested, processed and imported by one company; specialty coffee, involves more hands and steps (as many as 40 hands/steps).
“You are only as strong as your weakest link”
The end product is dependent on no single actor, but rather many hands that are as dependent and important from first to last. This is where the phrase “ you are only as strong as your weakest link” rings true. At any one stage, if one step is compromised this has consequences.
At the crop level, specialty coffee requires the right environment. This is connected to the altitude in which coffee is grown, the soil, climate, and only ripe cherries being harvested.
After the coffee is picked, it is then transported to a coffee mill and processed in an optimum time frame. Then it is stored, the coffee parchment removed; green beans sorted and packed for export.
The time and method of travel (flight/ sea/road) between the different actors (importer/exporter/broker/distributor/roaster) has an impact on the coffee.
Finally it is roasted, and depending on the roast type, as well as the equipment used, there is a grind type and temperature for the coffee to be brewed.
SCAA on substance over form that “adds value to the lives and livelihoods”?
The Specialty Coffee Association of America notes that they measure specialty coffee “against standards with methods that allow us to identify coffee that has been properly cared for” and in the final description
“the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods is truly a specialty coffee.”
Whilst high quality coffee may denote that coffee is free from defects, a coffee that “adds value to the lives and livelihoods is truly a specialty coffee,” is much harder to measure.
Where communicating the “origin” is often used as a “trump card” to implicitly say that the livelihoods of those involved in the process are enhanced, it is also a label that that does not necessarily improve all those involved in the process.
It is much more complex. There is no one size fits all approach, and with a product of which is a subset of one of highest traded in the world, the winnings and losings can be great for each involved in the specialty coffee market.
By Karyan Ng
Author’s note:This is the first in an eight-part introductory blog series about Specialty Coffee. Read the other posts here. Sign up to the newsletter for more on coffee, its origins and stories. This blog series is not sponsored in anyway.